As I got off the phone with my mom last week I made a mental note to let the nursing agency providing her with round-the clock home nursing support know about the names of two aides – one a favorite and one who was not to return. Driving on my way to catch the train for work, I repeated these names over and over in my head so they stuck and didn’t get crowded out by the bullet points I needed to convey on my upcoming conference call or by the other names filling my brain of my kids’ new camp friends and counselors and of various team members regarding upcoming mid-year reviews. ‘Christina, Christina, Christina’ I repeated out loud so I didn’t forget the nurse my mom was so very pleased with.
Keeping Mom happy with her aides has become one of my sister’s and my most important jobs over the last 3 months. With the continued march of her Parkinson’s disease and its gradual decay of both her mental capacity and physical stability, it’s hard to tell which has hit harder: the fall-out from 3 surgeries in the last 3 months or her loss of independent decision making. From physical therapy appointment timing to who she eats with, to the medicines she takes, her ability to make a single decision seems to narrow by the week. So having a say on who is there to help her with what the healthcare system neatly refers to as ‘activities of daily living’ – who you want to see you as you go to the bathroom, as you’re unsteady getting up from the chair, admitting you need some help getting ready to brush your teeth – matters. Especially when she had been living on her own until 3 months ago – a 24 hour ‘companion’ who she didn’t get to select was a big, and often unwelcome, deal.
After spending an afternoon with my mom – a combination of watching her nap, situating her in wheelchair for a walk outside, ordering and eating dinner, taking medications and conversations repeated a few times throughout my visit, I found myself after 4 hours wondering when the nighttime aide would arrive and thinking to myself that it was an awfully good thing I’d never signed up to be a nurse. Despite the slow pace of the afternoon, I was drained and edgy and focused inwardly rather than primarily on my mom’s needs. I have no good excuse for this since I don’t see her regularly as she and I live across the country from each other. As I sat in the chair silently, the door opened and in walked Christina, my mom’s favored aide. And instantly, I saw why.
She came in with a big bright smile, introduced herself and quickly settled her attention on my mom. She asked how her day was, how happy she must have been that I was there, asked her how many steps she’d taken at PT, while sitting next to mom, looking right into her eyes and touching her arm. And my mom visibly brightened at the sight of her.
Once my mom was in the bathroom, I asked Christina how long she’d been doing this work. Across 2 rehab facilities and 2 hospital visits, I’ve met a variety of people whose role is largely care-taking – and I’m amazed by those like Christina who so clearly have a passion for it. To me, it’s boring, unsatisfying, and success is awfully hard to gauge. But for the Christinas of the world, they delight in making small progress with those they care for – it’s the eye lock, the smile, the sense of trust they seem to be able to feel. Christina shared that she has 8 kids – some in their early 20s, one of whom she raised but isn’t hers biologically, and now she’s ‘started again’ with 3 kids aged 2-5. 15 years ago she realized that her life was about taking care of people – and she was good at it – so she pursued a career where she could do just that.
To say she’s good at it seems an understatement. She had spent the entire day with her kids and came in with more positive energy than many of us can muster on a weekend morning. She got energy from being with my mom instead of it sucking the energy from her. And to put a really fine point on it – the interactions are largely about her talking, my mom listening and occasionally responding, reading the newspaper to her when of interest, and doing her best to elicit a smile or the rare laugh. As I left, I remained baffled at how that can be satisfying.
The experience with Christina reminded me of a discussion I’d had with a recent graduate about the power of tools like StrengthsFinder in considering career options. I’ve found it a useful starting point to identify what each of us uniquely does well – and when we add to that what we love to do in life, what gives us purpose, it can be a powerful combination to find work that gives us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Reading about the current level of employee engagement at work (or lack thereof), it strikes me that tools like these are that much more important to find work that not only aligns with our skills and interests but is also work that has meaning for us. It can be tempting to reach for the glamorous job or hot company but it takes more courage and self-awareness to find work that fits with who we are and what makes us tick. And I couldn’t be happier that Christina had that invaluable self-awareness.
I attended the year-end open house at our daughters’ school last week, an attempt at rolling up 180 days of learnings into a 30 minute review. It’s akin to the end of year performance review at work – except that the reviewers – parents – rarely have ‘constructive’ feedback to share, with virtually all oohing and aahing over the papier mache creatures, self-portraits and non-fiction writing samples. Note to self that we may need to review the difference between fiction and non at home, since one of my daughters’ non-fiction writing samples focused on sledding in the Bay Area.
At one of the stops throughout the classroom tour, my daughter showed me the ‘pin’ chart. This is a piece of poster board with 5 different sections, along with one clothespin for each student. Each day, I knew from hearing about the pin board throughout the year, the entire class starts out in the middle section of the board – and when they do ‘good things’ during the course of the day – listening, being quiet at appointed times, following directions, cleaning up proactively – their pin can be moved up one section to the ‘good choices’ category. Conversely, not listening, talking during class and the like moves their pin down a notch. 2 moves up puts them in the ‘super student’ category – top of the heap, best of the best in classroom behaviors.
I noticed that while her class is roughly 60% boys, the majority of the pins at the top of the board were girls. This struck me since I’d recently attended a leadership event that highlighted the continued – and stubborn – gender discrepancy between senior leaders. While clearly a microcosm of only one elementary school classroom, it was a reminder to me of the very real difference between what we teach early on about success in the classroom and its parallel in the work world. Then later that week I came across this piece: Wondering What Happened to Your Class Valedictorian? Not Much, Research Shows. The premise here is that valedictorians are rarely the ones who go on to change the world, or to “the very top of adult achievement arenas”. That’s not to say that they’re not successful – the data here shows that they are. But this sums up the point nicely: “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries…they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.” Why? Because students who are at the top of their class have typically learned to do what they’re told and follow the rules.
And as I thought back to the companies I’d worked for – some startup, some multinational, all had at least one thing in common: they all prided themselves in recruiting students at the top of their class from the most highly ranked schools. And at some point, they all struggled with innovation. Each tinkered with rewarding risk taking – but these efforts largely failed when the first significant failure cost people future promotions. Was that stated outright? Of course not but the patterns were clear enough – especially to those predisposed to following the rules.
So what’s the solution? It strikes me as unlikely that outside the most progressive of schools (and those with very small class sizes) teachers will begin encouraging their charges to push the limits, question authority, and be the contrarians. Being a teacher is tough enough as it is. As parents we have some latitude to build this muscle in our kids. And as leaders and managers hiring those newly entering the work world, it’s a reminder that top grades may not be the best proxy for success, and that in our rapidly changing world that seems to be in growing need of being shaken up, an over-reliance on school success may limit what we enable to be possible within our own organizations.
I came home after work a few weeks ago to find a note whose color and size told me it could only have been from school. Typically these are permission slips or forms that ask us to fill in how many minutes our kids read each night (and no, I don’t ACTUALLY track how long they read. Not when I can simply enjoy the blissful quiet or ability to speak in uninterrupted sentences with my husband that this time allows. I will, though, admit to having removed the battery from a clock once or twice to extend the time. Survival mechanism).
This note read differently though. It was an invitation for one of my daughters to come to school 35 minutes early for the remaining Fridays of the school year for some extra help with math. There was a group of 6 of them that were being ‘offered’ this opportunity – to come have tea with their math teacher and do some extra practice. When I read it, I braced for the reaction since math has been a challenging topic in our household. For one daughter, it comes easily as she whips through her homework typically getting all of the problems right. Her sister equally rips through her homework – either quickly completing them all – with the majority incorrectly – or ripping the page itself in frustration. And then slammed doors, crying, and an hour or two of hurt feelings and frustration.
Thankfully – she adores her new math teacher. Her teacher is what I haven’t been with her – patient, adaptable to how she likes to learn and cheering on her wins rather than focusing on her misses. So when my daughter came to tell me about her tea – she shared it with the pride she clearly felt in having been selected. So with just a tinge of jealousy on how this teacher had made more work seem like more fun, I set out to learn a bit more about her.
What I learned reminded me of the training of my friend Charlie Sheppard – one of those that has stuck with me and changed my own approach over the years – the premise of which is that Leadership is a Choice. Many of us are taught the difference between management and leadership – though the two often seem so synonymous in the business world that the distinction can be tough to see. The point of the delineation though, and Charlie’s synthesis (which I’ve oversimplified here), is that everyone gets to choose whether or not they want to lead. We choose it in how we show up, in how we assess situations, in how we give and receive feedback and on and on. As Charlie points out: “we find three fundamental identities that a leader must have: being a catalyst, being a visionary and being a coach/mentor.” And what I realized was that this teacher was a fantastic example of all three.
Notice though that she’s not the principal, she’s not the superintendent. She’s not even the ‘lead teacher’ amongst her grade peers. This isn’t her first career, but one she moved to years after she graduated. And when she decided to teach, she put her own inimitable mark on her role. She brought yoga into the classroom, introducing her elementary school students to the calming and focusing effect that yoga can have. She created a book club for teachers –which caused one of her peers to tell her that ‘you need to get a hobby’. Whenever I’m playing with my kids at the schoolyard on weekends, if there’s a teacher there, she’s the one.
It was a clear reminder that in fact, leadership IS a choice. We all get to choose whether we want to lead, regardless of title or role. No one asked this teacher to lead. But she did anyway. She saw a need, she knew enough about her own skills and passions, she knew she could make a difference and she created change. I can’t imagine some of these changes were easy – I can envision the questions she was asked – ‘yoga? REALLY?’ – from skeptical parents and administrators alike. But she pushed through, she became a difference maker and I can say in our own household, she has changed the math experience.
She doesn’t get paid extra for the additional prep and time spent with kids, or for the tea she serves. But she is every bit the visionary, the catalyst, and the mentor. And a fantastic reminder that leadership is not about title, role, salary or the size of one’s team – but that it IS a choice. In the case of my daughter’s teacher, it’s one I’m most thankful she chose.